Thursday, May 10, 2018

Change Agent Series (3/3): Aishwarya's Pursuit for Equitable Education

Aishwarya with her students

The Road Not Taken - Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for  the passing there 
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - 
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Ever wandered, what makes the poem The Road Not Taken, so endearing for us? 
Possibly it's because we see our own reflection in the traveler.
Metaphorically speaking, we all are travelers in the journey of life and we confront these existential questions, along our journey -  

Should I take the road which my heart says?
or, Should I take the road more practical? 
Should I carve out my own path?
or, Should I follow the herd and take the trodden path?

To pursue one's true calling on the road less traveled, demands soul searching, being truthful to oneself and to stay on-course irrespective of sociocultural expectations.

Not a mean feat! That's why stories of men and women, who take this leap of faith are so special and needs to be told and retold. A beautiful story, can inspire someone who is now standing on the diverging roads in their life's journey.

This is my friend Aishwarya's story, who once stood on the diverging roads, she took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.   

Aurangabad a district in Maharashtra is Aishwarya's hometown. Like any other child from a typical middle class family in India, she grew up recognising the importance of formal education and upholding moral values.

"I studied in Nath Valley school, in Aurangabad through class I to XII. This is where I belong...this is where I made a strong circle of friends and even today, they are my pillar of support."

All along her schooling till class X, she was an average performer. In PUC, she took up Commerce along with Psychology as elective subject. As they say, interest flares up intrinsic motivation. Her interest in Psychology, made her outshine and she secured all India CBSE 2nd rank in her stream.

"Things changed me for in PUC. All along I used to consider myself as a non-ambitious, average student. During my school days, I had thought of pursing Mass Communication, but in PUC Psychology got me hooked. Now I was confused, Degree in Mass Comm. or Degree in Psychology? On top of it, I excelled at an all India level. On a positive note, this did help me to change my self-limiting perception of being a non-ambitious, average student."

Aishwarya's elder sister during that point in time, was residing in Bangalore. Through her, she got to know about Jyothi Nivas College, which was offering a combined Bachelor's Degree on Mass Communication, Literature & Psychology.

"I wanted to apply for Bachelor's in Psychology at Christ University, but had missed their timelines. When I came across this triple combination program at Jyothi Niwas college, I didn't have to give a second thought. It had Mass Communication which I always wanted to do, it had literature which I always loved since a child and it had Psychology, which I grew very fond of during my PUC days."

Three years of college life was fun. The Mass Comm. program was experiential, it involved making short film, Literature syllabus studying various genre of literature (Afro-American, Feminism, Victorian) and the Psychology lectures were captivating.

"Campus life in Bangalore, were the formative years for my independent identity. Living away from home teaches you decision making, independent thinking, understanding freedom and responsibility. I grew up so much more as a person, in these three years."

As they say, nothing lasts forever and good times lasts even shorter. Three years went by in a jiffy.

"I was again confronted with the question - What Next? I had thought of pursuing Masters in Mass Comm, back to Pune, closer home." Meanwhile, she came across notification for campus placement opening - Technical Writer, at Oracle in Bangalore. The requirement was Degree in English Literature. Out of curiosity, she applied for it and got through.

"The What Next decision became complex now. Previously the choice was obvious, a Master's Degree. Now I had to choose between Masters or job at Oracle." After considerable consultation with family, she decided to take up the job with Oracle. This was in the year 2011.

At job, in the first year she underwent training, in second year she was assigned to products for which she had to do technical writing, documentation. Her manager was based out of US and this global working environment helped her to develop a multi-cultural, global mindset. Being a people person, she was actively involved in team engagement initiatives and soon became the go to person in her team.

"On the surface things were going great! I was working with such a big brand, I had a good job, I was in company of so many talented and wonderful colleagues, my manager was a great mentor, I had a good work-life balance, evenings were for my Zumba classes, my weekends were free, infact I had nothing to complain about. However, deep inside I realised, I cannot work lifelong sitting in front of a computer."

Though she realized, she is not meant for a career in technical domain, she was yet to clear all her cobwebs. She decided to put to use her weekends, by taking up a Diploma in Counseling, at Banjara Academy, in the year 2013. This year long course, once again got her in touch, with her lost love - Psychology.

"The Counseling program, equipped me with skills for life - being a good listener, empathetic, non-judgmental. The program, exposed me various realities of the society and made me realise that each person is on their own unique journey."

After her successful completion of Diploma in Counseling, she wanted to stay engaged in some kind of compassionate work. During this search, she came across Make a Wish Foundation and started off as a volunteer, on weekends.

"As a volunteer with Make a Wish Foundation, I used to visit hospitals and spend time with children who were critically ill.  Our work was to make these children's wish (probably their last wish) come true. These interactions hit me hard and I was baffled to see, children from lower socio-economic background having such limited awareness of the world around them."

She was continuing her parallel lives, Monday to Friday - as a corporate executive and on Weekends - as an NGO Volunteer.

"It was a phase of turmoil for me. I knew my heart lied in something else and not in my day job. During lunch hours at office cafeteria, News Channel used to beam stories of rape, child abuse and other atrocities. We all office colleagues would be overtly critical about India and it's state of affairs. Over period, I started to realise we were all in this convenient state of mind of pointing fingers, but none of us wanted to be part of the solution."

Days converted into weeks, weeks in months, months into a year and Aishwarya's parallel life's carried on. This was the time, when she felt her job satisfaction was on a down swing, she was contemplating to quit and pursue a Masters in Mass Communication. In her head, she was still trying to make sense of the ongoing social issues and about her volunteering experiences with children of low socio-economic background.

"I believe in cause and effect. If there are wrong things happening in our society, there has to be a cause. It appeared to me, the cause was people's mindset - insensitive, unemphatic, inconsiderate, immoral. Mindset is largely shaped during childhood, as it is the most impressionable age and I was convinced, if we work with today's children they will grow up into adults of tomorrow, with a healthy mindset, automatically making it a better society."

On a random evening, while watching a stand-up comedy, a promotional campaign caught my attention. It was Teach for India. In Teach for India fellowship, one commits two years of his/her life on a full-time basis, to teach school children from lower socio-economic background (Govt or private school). She applied for fellowship with Teach for India. The robust screening process comprises of online application, essay writing, telephonic round, and final round was in person, at assessment center which included written assessment, group discussion and personal interview. She made it! and was offered the fellowship.

Change management, making transitions are always the most difficult part. In her case, the change was qualitatively and quantitatively different. Moving out from a well paying corporate job, into social sector on a fellowship.

"My monthly income was dropping by 70%. It required readjusting my life - I had to plan and do budgeting differently now.  Initially, most of my well wishers, including my parents, were not convinced with my decision. Materialistically I was going backward - leaving a big brand, taking a huge cut in my income, giving up a well set career where I was poised to have linear progression." Aishwarya's mom metaphorically told her with concern, "People climb up the career ladder and you are throwing away your ladder." She was justifiably concerned about her daughter's well being. She had a comfortable life, her peers were doing well and now all of sudden, she wanted to rock a stable boat and jump into the sea. 

When you are intrinsically driven, when you have clarity and purpose in life, when you have recognised your needs over your wants, outside voices stops to matter as you are tuned into your own voice. This is what had happened with Aishwarya, she had the inner conviction to reboot her life and to start a new journey on the road less traveled. "I knew I will be lot more happier from my daily work, no matter how challenging, as it was more meaningful and would touch many lives." 

In May 2016, she relocated to Pune, Maharashtra and was deployed in a private school which catered to children of lower socio-economic background. She had stepped out of her bubble, into the real world.

"Initial phase of my new journey was far from ideal and the change was enormous. Fifteen of us were living out of a small apartment before being thrown out by the association members. I was all the time into multi-tasking mode and was left with no time for myself, unlike my Bangalore routine when I had my evenings reserved for Zumba classes and weekends for volunteering. Days were cramped up with work and I started skipping lunch on a regular basis."

The community visits was an overwhelming experience. Families living in tin shed houses, their complete lack of awareness on personal hygiene, sanitary napkins, nutrition was hard hitting.

"It hits you hard. Here I was an idealist, wanting to change everything at one go and then you realize there is so much to change and it is going to be a long drawn process."

The RTE (Right to Education) Act, has been a good move for promoting education. However, this has caused other set of problems. "With RTE Act, no student can be failed till class VIII. Majority of the children from low socio-economic, have minimal parental investment in their life. There is a casual approach towards studies, lack of accountability and lack of interest in studies. There are n number of instances of a IX grader's subject knowledge being equivalent to a II grader studying in an upmarket school."

Aishwarya was deployed for two years in a private school, which had children from low socio-economic background. Total strength of the school was 650 students. "At school we have to instruct and teach experienced professional teachers new pedagogy. This is a sensitive aspect, as we are so young, half their age and we are coming and teaching them new methodologies and practices. The job demands to bring all stakeholders together, to work for the child's well-being and keep personal interests and conflicts at bay. Teach for India, message board says, Are You Ready for the Challenge? I now know why, it says so :-)."

Teach for India, functions on a two year rotation basis. One fellow leaves after his/her two years of fellowship and the new fellow replaces him/her. This cycle continues. Aishwarya was replacing a fellow, who had made a very good name for himself at his work. One of the key attribute of this fellow was strictness. "In my mind, I thought I have a big shoes to fill in, I wanted to emulate him and I conducted myself with strictness. This caused me additional distress, because this is not natural self. My expression of strictness was coming out as anger and aggression. I was making the mistake of copy someone and not being myself."

After several weeks of struggle, the realisation dawned into her. "My strength is empathy and I had come here to work with compassion, but I was foolishly exhibiting anger. From that day on, her motto became - "Change the world with kindness, not from hatred."

From this point on, there was no looking back for her. An affectionate yet assertive teacher was now in charge, to shape young minds for the next two years. 

"I realised staying true to myself was most important. I had to work on being firm and assertive without losing my essence. Being my natural self helped me in building personal relationships with my students. Over a period, the children found me approachable and they started to trust me and confide in me."

The journey was not a fairy tale with everything working out well with a magic wand. There were days, when frustration and helplessness would grip her. Factors like lack of financial resources, domestic violence, vulnerable environment were out of her control as a teacher, but these factors would hold back her students from focusing on their studies.  "It would leave me clueless about how to change the situation. Gradually it struck me that I'm here to uplift the kids so that they can change their own circumstances. I knew that with a little more faith in themselves, they truly find their greatness."

This faith, mutual trust in each other and the harmonious, learning environment did produce it's positive outcomes. Several of her kids have excelled academically, while others have shown their talent through several other mediums. They have performed street play on non-violence, a third of her class participated in the musical showcase for the school's annual day. They have conducted sessions on building and imbibing essential values for junior classes. "Marks may be important, but it’s their other, more holistic achievements that fill me with pride."

So what advice would you give to someone who is in dilemma - should I take the road less traveled?

"If you are clear on where your true happiness lies, then all you need to do is to take the leap of faith and trust the process. The journey is going to be challenging and full of ups and downs, but the amount of inner satisfaction, sense of purpose and happiness is unparalleled."

Memories for a lifetime

I asked her, about her reflections through this journey.

" This will be my happiest Once upon a time story :). I may have been too idealistic to think that my journey as a fellow at Teach for India is going to be a step towards changing the face of the nation, but now with a clearer perspective, I do believe that one child at a time we can make this happen. I want this strong cause, of providing equal and quality education, to have a ripple effect leading to the effective transformation of an individual, a society and a country."

Time flies, Aishwarya has completed her two years of fellowship. She is now joining Teach for India, as Program Manager for Pune City. She will now play a bigger role in on-boarding new fellows, coordinating with schools and doing her bit to promote quality education for all and transform one child at a time, to make a better individual, a better society, a better India and a better world.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - 
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.